I recently completed a course on ethical user experience design and now I can’t help but notice dodgy stuff on websites, sometimes, in the most surprising places. I have to believe that the owner of the website doesn’t know that these are dodgy persuasive practices.

And, because I know you don’t want to be manipulative and dodgy; I think it’s vital to learn how to spot these dark patterns and understand the negative impact they have on your users.

Do you see what I did there? I used emotive words to guilt you into thinking the way I want you to… “I know you don’t want to be manipulative and dodgy…” is manipulative, but is it unethical?

Well, it all depends on my motives. If I’m trying to make you feel guilty so I can get something out of you, that’s unethical. In an instance where I’m trying to get something out of you, my emotive words aren’t wrong because they’re emotional manipulations – they’re wrong because they’re unfair to you.

That’s just one example of persuasive design, using emotive language. And you don’t have to go far to find emotive language in practice, just look at any charity website. Here, emotive language is used to encourage you to donate. So, in this instance, it’s used in an ethical way. But what about using emotive language on a political website?

Or on your course sales page?

I recently saw something that went along the lines of:

“This is your last chance to enrol in the course that could change your life. If you don’t act now, you’ll miss out on exclusive content, insider tips, and the support you need to achieve your goals. Don’t be the one left behind while others succeed. Sign up today, before it’s too late!

Button copy: Join Now and Transform My Future

Copy below the button: No, I’m Okay with Staying Where I Am”

Sounds like the last CTA on a typical course sales page, doesn’t it?

But let’s look a little closer at what’s happening here…

The copy creates a sense of urgency and scarcity by suggesting that this is the “last chance” and the “final opportunity” to enroll in the course. This manipulates users into thinking they need to act immediately or risk losing out on something valuable.

There’s guilt in the text below the button. “No, I’m Okay with Staying Where I Am,” is designed to make users feel guilty or ashamed if they choose not to sign up. It implies that they are making a poor decision by not taking action.

The suggestion that others will succeed while the user will be “left behind” if they don’t sign up creates a sense of social pressure. This can lead users to feel compelled to conform to what they perceive others are doing to avoid being seen as less successful or ambitious.

So, the overall tone and wording of this copy is manipulative, using emotive language (“transform your life,” “achieve your goals,” “don’t be the one left behind”) to persuade people to make a decision they might not otherwise make if they weren’t persuaded and pressured into it.

How does that make you feel?

Now, picture the person reading this sales page as someone deep in debt, about to be evicted from their home and desperately hoping that the promise to transform their future is true. How does that make you feel?

The reality is that we all use persuasion in our marketing, and it can be ethical if done transparently and honestly, but it becomes unethical when it manipulates or deceives.

How do you ensure it’s ethical?

  • By being super clear about your offer. Providing accurate information without hiding or downplaying important details.
  • By allowing people to make decisions without undue pressure or manipulation.
  • By avoiding exploitative tactics like FOMO, fear or guilt.

So, to quote Voltaire (or spiderman’s uncle Ben):

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Persuasion in marketing is a powerful tool. It can be used to convince people of the value of a product or service ethically. But if it’s used to manipulate, deceive, or coerce, it crosses into unethical territory.

The key is respect. Provide honest and relevant information and respect people’s ability to make their own choices.